My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Why Shouldn’t I Be Difficult?
Unable to stay home after the death of her husband, May (Anne Reid) is an unwelcome guest at her grown son’s family house in London. Left to her own daytime devices while the family are out running their oh-so-busy lives, May has no one to keep her company except the laid-back 30-something carpenter Darren (Daniel Craig), who is renovating the house and to whom she becomes attracted. But Darren is married—and, not only that, he’s her daughter’s beau. What ensues is a complex, hot-cold balancing act that endangers the family’s relationships. The Mother, an outrageous, suspenseful kitchen-sink drama that rattles sexual norms yet withholds judgment, premiered in Directors’ Fortnight and will be released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics in May.
I participated in the press roundtables held for The Mother at the Carlton Beach Terrace in Cannes last summer, shaded from a sunny beach ambiance of lapping waves, stately yachts and reclining bathers. The high-stakes elbow-to-elbow conviviality of the roundtable is as workmanly relaxed as Cannes gets.
Round I: Roger Micheli and Hanif Kureishi
Q The film is pretty daring. I can’t think of film precedents for a parent having an affair with their child’s lover, except perhaps Damage. Did you run into any resistance? Did people say, “Excuse me, that’ll never fly”?
Roger Michell Yeah. Nobody wanted to make it. It only worked because BBC Films were bold enough to fully finance the project, and because we were happy to reduce the budget to the lowest possible figure, which is about one and a half million pounds.
Q Did you write the movie for Anne Reid?
RM Anne was simultaneously offered this part and a part in Calendar Girls, so at age 65 she was caught between two topless roles. And she very sensibly chose this one—
Hanif Kureishi—which was more topless than the other.
RM Well, there’s more sex in this one. Calendar Girls is a lovely film, but it’s not really about sex. The films that we thought of when we were working were Harold and Maude and Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul. But neither of those films is really about the sex between the incompatible couples depicted. And Hanif was bold enough to address the issue head-on, which I thought was very right.
Q Was it hard to find someone who was prepared to do that onscreen?
RM No. We thought it would be, but Anne was the first person we offered it to, and she wanted to do it.
HK In my experience with film, women will take their clothes off. Guys hate taking their clothes off. Not because they don’t want their genitals exposed, but because they don’t want people to see their stomachs.
RM I find that the reverse is true, that any woman over 35 is wary of taking her clothes off on film, because there’s the tyranny of the beauty of the young female form. But maybe there’s a threshold over 60.
Q I’m amazed at the humility of the script, at the reserve and the compassion—
HK What I try to do is leave space for the actors to be creative, to fill out the interpretation of the role with bits of their own character, to show the sympathetic side. It’s not like a novel, where you fill everything in.
RM Anne Reid did one of the [porno]graphic drawings in May’s journal herself. We copied her style and slightly exaggerated the finality of the images. It’s more shocking seeing the drawings than it would be seeing the acts they depict, because what’s shocking is her imaginative enjoyment.
Q When the son and daughter see those drawings lying out and realize what happened—May and Darren couldn’t say the words, so the drawings do it for them.
HK In that way we were able to avoid a big confrontation between mother and daughter. I realized, when the daughter finds out, if she’d gone to the mother and said, You fucked my boyfriend, the film would be over. What we needed to do was sustain the tension. The only way to do that was for the daughter to puzzle over what she found, to see whether it was really true, what it meant, how it would play out … . Otherwise you’re in and out.
Q Talking about restraint, I’ve noticed that often the strongest moments are seen from the widest angle, from far away or from behind something, from another room.
RM Sometimes you don’t want to intrude too much. You don’t want the camera to be nosy, but to keep a respectful distance. We’re not interfering with the characters’ lives.
HK Roger’s film Notting Hill was very fast-paced, with a lot of action. What a contrast this is: he dared to hold a shot on someone’s face and trust that people will continue to be interesting. You could see it in the faces of the actors. If you look at Anne Reid, what’s remarkable about her performance is how little she needs to do. If you study her face throughout the film, she resists the temptation to act. It’s as if, rather than perform, she allows the camera to uncover her face.
Q The film seems to be very aware of the stressfulness of contemporary life, which makes you do things out of desperation.
HK Well, there’s a scene at the beginning of the film, when the grandparents arrive, where the noise level really increases. That’s what families are like—it’s chaos. And this couple from a very quiet background, living outside London, suddenly smashes into this family.
RM Hanif and I have spent a lot of time looking after our children; we both get quite stressed out by it. The film anatomizes the modern family. It’s diasporized: the children have changed class, the grandparents live two hundred miles away. The little girl doesn’t even recognize the grandparents. A hundred years ago there were large, luxurious extended families that acted as social services and became a security mechanism. We don’t live like that anymore. Modern European families are getting increasingly complicated. In this film the family’s complications are enhanced by the fact that the mother is fucking the daughter’s boyfriend.
Q The characters in this film are always on the cusp between being sympathetic and unsympathetic. You’re really riding that edge with them. It’s something you can only get away with in low-budget films. You’ve worked on both sides of the fence. In bigger films it seems you have to be much more clear-cut.
RM It’s precisely that edge that might set this film apart from mainstream films. Your allegiances keep changing. And that’s the only type of writing that interests me, writing about the human paradox. Hanif is not a dogmatist. This isn’t a film trumpeting the rights of elderly women to have sex—it’s a film about our experience of the world.
Q Is there more freedom on a smaller-budget film for you as a director, or does the luxury of a bigger budget give you more freedom?
RM On this film I had total freedom because I brought the budget down. On Notting Hill we were playing a different game. It was a big studio film with many millions of dollars spent on it, and you have to be responsible about that. But it’s up to you to make sure the atmosphere is good on the set, whatever the cost of the movie. On this one we had no generator, no trailers, no catering.
Q Are you going to work together again?
RM Unfortunately, (laughter) We’ve known each other for 25 years.
HK We worked at the Royal Court Theatre together. We didn’t know each other very well then, but we both have the same sort of cultural background.
Q What was the first thing you worked on together?
HK The Buddha of Suburbia, which is a TV series.
Q Hanif, are you working on another book right now?
HK I just finished a book called The Body, which was just published in the U.S. by Scribner; it’s about a man in his seventies who has his brain removed and placed in the body of a 25-year-old. Roger and I are talking about doing it as a movie in the next couple of years.
RM And I’m doing a film from a book called Enduring Love by Ian McEwan, with Daniel Craig, Samantha Morton and Rhyf Evans. It will be made in England, with a slightly bigger budget, about $10 million.
Q Is it more satisfying writing fiction or screenplays?
RM Its all storytelling. I don’t consider writing a movie to be less serious than writing a novel.
Q Which is more satisfying when you’re actually sitting at the machine writing?
HK It’s all terrible, awful, boring—and hard work, although there are very profound pleasures in it. It’s the difficulties that are interesting. But working with directors is stimulating for me. My latest theory is that poor novels are made into films. There’s no piece of prose fiction on earth that won’t be turned into celluloid in the future.
Round II: Anne Reid and Daniel Craig
Anne Reid I’m dizzy. This time last year we hadn’t even started the film.
Q You actually made the first drawing in the movie.
AR Who told you that?
AR It was the one of Darren standing naked in the little room, in the background. There were much ruder ones than that. I did one in my friend’s garden. She said, “What are you doing?” And I said, I’m drawing dirty pictures.”
Q It was a very bold role for you. What attracted you to it?
AR You get parts that you have to turn yourself inside out to play. But when I read the script I felt, I know that woman. Because I’m a widow. And I gave up my career for a while. So people say I’ve been brave. Acting’s always hard, but understanding this character wasn’t.
Q Were you worried about wearing trousers?
AR I’d rather wear a nice frock. But she does develop her wardrobe, doesn’t she? It was such a good role. And you don’t turn down the chance of working with a director like Roger Micheli. How many parts are there for women of my age? I’m usually in the kitchen making the sandwiches or dying in a hospital bed with tubes stuck in me.
Q Was it the first film in which you have a naked love scene?
AR Ever. I’ve never, ever, ever had a naked love scene. When I was 30 I would have been delighted to take my clothes off.
Daniel Craig I read the script and, you know, Hanif writes about not the most attractive parts of life. But the writing was wonderful.
Q How difficult was the final confrontation scene between the two of you, on the front porch when Darren is all coked up?
AR That was very scary.
DC There’s a tendency for things to get melodramatic. We did two very quick takes. Roger, as confident as he is, just went, “That’s it, we got it.”
AR Daniel just took a deep breath and went for it. We had two cameras on it.
DC It was a long take. But it was part of a very enjoyable, easy process.
AR Because I do mostly television, I learned so much about film working with Roger. I can’t say I didn’t argue with him, because I’m quite argumentative.
Q What would you argue about?
DC Just about everything, (laughter)
AR About the character. I am in the hands of Hanif and Roger, two 40-year-old men. I’m a 65-year-old woman. Who’s more likely to know how to play that character than me? They saw it as having much more to do with sex. I’ve talked to a lot of women my age, and of course we want sex, but we don’t want just that. May is looking for the romance that she never found. That’s what I felt when I played it—I’m looking for that excitement. May sort of kids herself for 10 minutes that she’s found it, then realizes that it’s quite absurd. I feel very strongly about the way this woman thinks. Gradually Roger came around to my way of thinking. So we got quite a good balance.
Q And Daniel, what did Darren want, ultimately?
DC Darren’s a bit of an emotional junkie. I felt very much that he got pleasure from giving, but it was selfish giving because he wanted something positive in return. May’s offer of money came up, and it was a big surprise for Darren, but that wasn’t his motive. Obviously his family life is a mess, and he looks for another family. What’s interesting is that he’s able to have this relationship in front of her children, in their faces.
AR It makes such sense to me. He could see her need. He could feel that void in her life. Obviously he’s having sex all over the place. It’s no big deal for him. But for her it’s a huge deal. And he’s kind, as if he’s giving her a present. Then it gets more complicated.
Q The lovemaking scenes, for the viewer, are potentially awkward. How did you feel with it?
AR I didn’t have a problem with Danny. I had a problem with the 17 other guys in the room. When you’ve got the crew there … But I never felt uncomfortable with Danny, ever.
DC Sex scenes, by their very nature—there’s always a bit of tension. But Roger makes a very comfortable set.
AR I was more worried about showing my old body, you know. But my son said to me the night before, For God’s sake, mum, it’s just your pride, go for it. But you don’t know what you’re going to look like on screen, and I didn’t want to become a joke.
Q How old is your son?
AR He’s 32, two years younger than Daniel. He hasn’t seen the film yet. He’s not going to be sitting next to me when he does, I can tell you that. He’s very cool. Even if he’s horrified, he won’t say anything.
Q The Mother is about class as well as age.
DC I’m not so sure. I read the script and immediately thought, “OK, he’s a builder, he’s from London.” And Roger said, No, no, I want you to do it your way. What’s interesting is that Darren went to university. He could have been a successful middle-class guy like May’s son. But in fact he sort of tailed off. It’s about being transient: most people who live in large cities don’t come from that city. That’s more the issue than class.
Q But the mother says to the daughter, “You could do better than sleeping with Darren.”
DC That’s a middle-class attitude, isn’t it?
AR The family is lower-middle-class. Women can get quite snobby about things like that, even though they have no reason to.
DC It has less to do with his class than that he’s a lecherous 35-year-old man who hasn’t got a job and lives in his van.
Q One really telling detail is that May’s son is desperate to sell the house Darren is working on. Real estate has become a crutch.
DC Sure. There’s a social portrayal as well. It’s not only for my character. Ultimately that’s the disaster—there isn’t a family, so when the chips are down, fucking move on, because you’ve got to survive. That’s sad.
Q It’s not quite clear why Daniel’s character was so angry about that. He was working on one part of the house—
AR It was a piece of really good work, a piece of art to him, and it meant nothing to them but money.
Q He wasn’t going to be cheated out of his contract or anything.
DC It has more to do with the fact that he’s looking for a family. As long as he could keep that job going, I could see him consciously taking his time. He’d like this job to go on for life. He’d like to finish the porch and then build the spare bedroom. Not because he wants the money but because this is his home too. It’s the emotional pain of having to move on.
AR All the characters are so complex. They all have good and bad sides, as people do. And selfishness. A situation arises, and one reacts to it.
DC And the damage that it does is one of the recurrent themes of the movie. We can all relate to it.
AR You can’t come out on anybody’s side in this film—well, possibly on May’s side. The daughter will get other men—she’s young and beautiful. She’s got her whole life ahead of her. May only has this chance.
DC It’s not anybody’s fault.
AR I wanted the ending to be different. I said, Can’t we go to Italy, or Paris and find her a nice Frenchman?
Q At the end, she’s off to a fresh start. So she’s achieved her goal. She’s made the transition. What part of England are you from?
AR Originally Newcastle-on-Tyne. All my family were journalists. My grandfather worked for the Daily Telegraph, as did my father: he was Middle Eastern correspondent. My brother Larry had a column on the Evening Standard.
Q How did you end up being an actor instead of a journalist?
AR Somebody’s got to do something different. My mother worked in a grocery shop, like May, until she got married. All my family would have loved this movie. My dad would have been exploding with pride.
Q Are you enjoying your resurgent career?
AR Yes. I wish it had happened 20 years ago. You can bang on the doors, but … I gave up for a very long time when my husband died. And that’s why I understand this character.
—Liza Bear is a contributing editor of BOMB. Her films have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Edinburgh Film Festival. She has interviewed some of the most intriguing foreign filmmakers of the past decade for a raft of national publications, including recently the New York Daily News, the Boston Globe, and the Christian Science Monitor.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.